Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - A Player to Watch
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A Player to Watch 01/06/2010 - 3:14 PM

Rn This is the first in a series on the intriguing storylines coming into 2010. I’ll begin with the biggest question on the men’s tour as the new season begins: Can Rafa regain his No. 1 form?

Over the holidays and through the off-season I try to watch as little tennis as possible. But last week, flipping idly through the normally barren upper channels on my TV, I happened on a few games that no fan of the sport should ever turn off. ESPN Classic, in its Best of the Decade series, was replaying the 2008 Wimbledon men’s final, and the score was 3-4, Rafael Nadal serving to Roger Federer, in the fifth.

This was before the match had been sealed with its Greatest Of All Time label, when no one had any idea how it would end, when it looked like it might just be the story of Federer’s crowning moment, the improbable comeback his career still lacked at that point (now we know that it would have to wait until the following year’s French Open). Nadal went down 30-40 on his serve. This was essentially a championship point, considering that Federer hadn’t been broken for three sets and about five hours. Nadal hit his first serve in and Federer hit a decent return down the middle. It looked like a normal crosscourt rally was about to ensue. Instead Nadal stepped around the ball and broke open the point with an inside-out forehand. Scrambling, Federer could only throw up a desperation lob. Nadal put the overhead and the break point away.

Federer would subsequently hold for 5-4, forcing Nadal to serve to stay in a match that had once seemed sure to be his. On the first point, Nadal missed his first serve. As Nadal began his second-serve toss, Federer, sensing this was the moment to go for the kill, moved aggressively forward and toward his backhand side, the spot where he assumed the second serve would go. Except that it didn’t go there. Nadal tossed the ball a little farther behind his head and did something he had done only a few other times that day in the deuce court: He hit his second serve out to the forehand side. Federer, caught, nowhere near it, was aced. He dropped his head, looking almost embarrassed. It wasn’t his moment after all. Nadal held.

I’d forgotten about those two shots, the forehand and the serve. Seeing them again made me think two things. (1) Any idea that this match ended up as a crapshoot in the dark, that it was little more than good fortune that elevated Nadal over Federer that day, is nonsense. At the end, late in the fifth set, he was both the gutsier and the smarter player. (2) Nadal is, more than any other Hall of Fame player I’ve seen, a creature of confidence.

The Wimbledon final, along with his performance at the Olympics the next month, marked a pinnacle of belief for Nadal. He’d dominated the sport, and Federer, through the clay-court season, and the momentum from those wins was enough to carry him to his biggest titles yet on grass and hard courts. As Federer judiciously described Nadal’s 2008 season: “He was the man of the moment.” Of course, Nadal isn't the only tennis player who lives on confidence, and it’s obvious that you have to feel pretty good about your game to go for an inside-out forehand winner down break point in the fifth set of the Wimbledon final. But confidence means even more to Nadal than it does to just about everyone else. Even his resourcefulness, his on-court intelligence and thinking process, are dependent on it. By the end of 2009, when Nadal had no belief in himself whatsoever, it wasn’t just that he'd stopped hitting the ball well. What was strange was that he wasn’t using all of his mental and strategic resources to try to turn matches around. At the final event in London, where he lost six straight sets, Nadal did little more than get to the ball and hit it back over the net. Like I said, it’s hard to think of other players of his stature whose level—whose belief, mood, even the effectiveness of his signature shots—varies so wildly.

The question now is, can Nadal climb back to those peaks of confidence that he reached in his “man of the moment” summer of 2008? And if so, how long will it take?

Since his breakthrough season of 2005, Nadal has typically been unbeatable for stretches of four to six months before falling back to earth for about the same amount of time. Maybe, on second thought, Nadal isn’t unique for his varying levels of confidence, but for how consistently he varies from year to year—he always goes up, he always goes down, and then, just when you wonder whether his psyche or knees are permanently fried, he always goes up again. Before 2009, Nadal’s hot streak usually started with the clay-court season, or just before it at Indian Wells, and sustained him until the dog days and hard courts of summer in North America. Last year, it started earlier, in Australia in January, but lasted about the same amount of time, until the end of May in Paris.

If it hadn’t been for that slightly surprising start last year, I would say with confidence that it will be a while before we see the Nadal of Wimbledon 2008; that he’ll need to get matches and wins under his belt to build himself back up. But even before last season, Nadal’s turnarounds could be sudden and unexpected. In 2007, he started so slowly that, for the first time that I could remember, I didn’t pick him to reach the semis of a Masters event, at Indian Wells. Naturally, he chose that tournament to play his finest tennis in months. He blew through the draw and won virtually everything before being stopped in five sets in the Wimbledon final by Federer. (I’m betting that more than one of you will say that all Nadal needs is for me not to pick him to win a major, and everything will be all right for him.) As he showed in Indian Wells that year and in Melbourne in 2009, Nadal doesn’t necessarily need to work his way up to his best tennis. He can get there in the course of about a week.

Has Rafa shown any signs of his old form this week, in his two early round wins in Doha? I caught about a set of his match against Simone Bollelli, and I thought he looked OK. He stepped around a few forehands, but not as many as he does when he’s feeling good. He hit a few backhand winners, but he also hit some so poorly that he was doing shadow backhand swings after missing them, telling himself to extend through the stroke more. He was spending most of his time well behind the baseline. Overall, he seemed to be closer to late 2009 form than prime 2008 form (the orange shirt doesn't help, either), though he showed much more determination than he did in London. After his long, involuntary mid-season '09 break, he didn’t want to take any more time off at the end of the year. You could see against Bollelli that Nadal wants to work his way out of this slump.

We can’t know the future, but if we take the past as a guide—what else can we do?—we can only say that Nadal will reach his best form sometime in 2009, and that he’ll stand at the center of at least one Grand Slam winner’s circle. He’s been there in each of the last four seasons, a period of time in which he’s never fallen out of the Top 3. He owns winning records against virtually every player of consequence. And there are question marks surrounding the other guys near him in the rankings: Can Djokovic keep it together for two full weeks? Can Murray become more proactive? What’s Federer’s motivation now? Is del Potro ready to shoulder the expectations? 

While the Federer-Nadal chokehold at the top of the sport will end someday, it has already proven to be a uniquely durable two-man product. Each of them has wavered over the years, each has seemed to be on his last legs—literally, in Nadal’s case—but neither has been dislodged from the year-end No. 1 or 2 spot since 2004. At some point, you have to say of their predicted demise: I’ll believe it when I see it.

Nadal’s 2010 will depend on one long-term element and one short-term element. The long-term issue will be his knees; he’s playing a similar schedule to last season, when they betrayed him halfway into the year. The short term issue will be his ability to find that match, that moment, that shot, that tournament, the one which will allow him to find his old confidence, his old aggressiveness, and his old resourcefulness and become temporarily unbeatable again.

In the meantime, tennis fans can enjoy watching him search for that moment. Nadal’s ups and downs make him, more than most other players, worth watching for the journey as much as for the end result. Where Federer, the ultimate in consistent excellence, barely lets us see him sweat, Nadal takes us for a ride with him as he plays—sometimes it's scary, other times it's exhilarating. The guy has the gift of transparency; few, if any, current players photograph as vividly on court. In his walk, in his face, in his eyebrows, even in his backhand, he can’t hide how he’s feeling. I’ll predict just one thing about Rafa in 2010: He’ll be a player to watch.

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Posted by rn2010 01/06/2010 at 03:51 PM

2 slams in 2010.
you have hit the nail on the head: confidence is all he needs

Posted by Pawan 01/06/2010 at 04:18 PM

good one tignor. really enjoyed it.

however, i think the only thing nadal needs as of now is a match with Federer. A good 3 set win over Federer in the Doha final will be enough to set the spark for throughout the hardcourt season.

VAMOS RAFA! (although i support Federer too)

Posted by bbc 01/06/2010 at 04:30 PM

Horrible t-shirt Rafa is wearing.

Posted by Corrie 01/06/2010 at 04:40 PM

I hope for the sake of tennis that Nadal regains his form. The rivalry at the top is what draws in a lot of casual fans.

Steve, your comments on the final set at 08 Wimbledon point to how good Nadal has been at saving breakpoints at the most crucial moments in the biggest finals. He did the same at the AO final too. Federer has a woeful record of breakpoint conversions against Nadal and it isn't all because he gets tentative on some - which he does. Nadal really comes up with some special moments at crisis points. That's what he can do when his confidence is high.

That Wimbledon final set did become a bit of a shoot out with darkness approaching but Nadal certainly earnt the win. They both played very bravely under huge pressure.

Posted by surinamer 01/06/2010 at 04:41 PM

I guess I'm not the only one still writing 2009 when referring to the new year. :)

Posted by Tonue 01/06/2010 at 04:43 PM

How could someone call Rafa's shirt horrible? I guess the fela is anti-rafa and does not all know anything about fashion, mood and colours!

Posted by ThyGodisTennis 01/06/2010 at 04:52 PM

Federer uber alles 2010!

Posted by katada 01/06/2010 at 05:00 PM

I totally agree that Nadal is the player to watch on 2010. He coluld give all of us big surprises this year. I do like the color of his shirt with the white pants.

Posted by Sarmad 01/06/2010 at 05:12 PM

please change the shirt rafa!

2 slams this year

Posted by initz 01/06/2010 at 05:13 PM

The reason I am a Rafa fan is exactly that said in the last paragraph. Rafa´s game is "worth watching for the journey...Nadal takes us for a ride with him as he plays—sometimes it's scary, other times it's exhilarating", he gives it all (most of the time), his strong mind, his passion when he plays, his "transparency" make´s you FEEL... a match.

BTW... I do like de orange shirt :)

Posted by Avec Double Cordage 01/06/2010 at 05:22 PM

interesting read, but you mixed 09 with 10 where it says "we can only say that Nadal will reach his best form sometime in 2009"

judging from his decision to not go to face Nadal in spain in the davis cup, I guess that Federer will be hard to beat at the majors yet again, posted a video with some super slowmotions and best shots of the fed

and wrote more about that on my blog, those that care click on my name to read

Posted by Master Ace 01/06/2010 at 05:25 PM

Agreed that the question about Nadal is the number 1 question on the ATP. He got off to a good start defeating Ferrer and Soderling to win the exo at Abu Dhabi collecting 250K in the process then winning easily over Bolelli and Starace with Darcis a likely win in straight sets tomorrow.

Posted by Sirocco 01/06/2010 at 05:27 PM

I'm also envisaging a slam this year. He is looking mighty impressive at the moment and he think he's playing better than Tignor's pointing out; relatively speaking anyway he's looking so much fresher than at the end of 2009, and he's ripping the ball, as well as showing the initiative to push forward. I'd love for him to take Wimbledon again and the US, and he can then cement himself among the elite few able to win all 4 Grand Slams. Vamos Rafa.

Posted by Aabye 01/06/2010 at 05:31 PM

Great article, Mr. Tignor. I've always thought of Nadal as a confidence player, but you're right in that the last two years have shown just how much more important it for him than someone like Federer or Sampras. And your description of his inability to hide his emotions is also the reason I think for his inability to impress upon his opponents that sense of inevitability that the latter two are/were able to project.

Posted by observer 01/06/2010 at 05:41 PM

Really well written. Excellent read, if not an obvious premise. Even when he lacks confidence I would never expect Nadal to lose a match other than to Federer on hard court or grass. He is confident, gritty and indominable. Federer's my man, but how can someone not respect Nadal's abilities? People might be calling him the GOAT already at this point if Federer didn't exist, but it's so hard to say whether Federer or Nadal would have been as good as he ended up being without the other.

Your description of those games in Wimbledon 08 was riveting. If only Federer had won, I wouldn't remember it as the greatest match ever in a nervous, hands sweating ice water all day, giving way to supreme disappointment, kind of way. But, then again, I wouldn't have the summer of 2009 as such a feel good story of redemption.

What will tennis do without these two?

Posted by eddie 01/06/2010 at 05:55 PM

I know Rafa will be back!! He's heathly and looking good. BTY(loving the orange shirt)


Posted by TB 01/06/2010 at 06:03 PM

Yeah, bad shirt

Posted by TennisFan2 01/06/2010 at 06:15 PM

It seemed like Rafa really wanted to be anywhere but on a tennis court from the French Open through the end of the season. After playing one of the best matches in tennis ever against Verdasco at the AO, followed by a couple of great ones against Djokovic, Rafa's spark seemed to just flicker out. He was physically and emotionally done by the time he hit Paris.

Watching him lose to Soderling was horrendous (not so much b/c the Sod beat him (ok well maybe a little) but b/c he didn't show even the slightest hint of the spark that makes him so special to watch).

We can only hope Rafa got what he needed from his physical/mental break and the best is yet to come (at least he didn't retire and come back - LOL).

Perhaps even the best have to flirt with the "what if I don't play this game anymore" question??? For all we know Rafa read "Open" and had a one on one conversation with Andre some time late last year.

I do believe that 2009 is behind Rafa and he's starting to make the climb out of the pit. I know we will be rewarded with some incredible tennis to start the decade.

Vamos Rafa - we are looking forward to a memorable 2010!

Posted by sportincorp 01/06/2010 at 06:25 PM


Rafa is a great player, but we have no idea what the future holds for him. He has not really played anybody in which you can really say that he is back. He did beat Soderling, but that was an exho, and than Soderling lost to Genepri in the first round of the first tournament of the year. That tells you that he is not where he was at the end of last year. Delpotro, Djokovic, Murray, and Davydenko will be the guys that will tell us whether Nadal is back or not. Roger Federer at the moment is playing at a different level from Rafa in my personal opinion, but that can always change when they go h2h. We will have an idea about Rafa after the Australian Open 2010. Until than it is just speculation. In the mean-time I will give my predictions for 2010:

AO- Federer
FO- Federer
WI- Federer
UO- Djokovic

I also think Djokovic will be in two slam finals this year. These predictions will change possibly after Australia.

Posted by melanie 01/06/2010 at 06:33 PM

I love the shirt, it suits him and maybe the colour will fire him up to some good wins.

I watched the highlights against Sodering in Abu Dhabi and he looked to getting back to his best, to beat Soderling on a hard court after the last couple of matches has to be good for his confidence.

I too find that watching Rafa takes us on a journey, you never know when he will be amazing or play as a mere mortal and his emotitions just makes it all so much more worthwhile to watch him play than it does anyone else. Andy Murray would be a great cure for insomnia!

As Steve says in 2010 Rafa will be one to watch, hopefully there will be a few trophies lifted about his head at some stage during the year.

Disappointd that Fed has pulled out of the Davis Cup tie, that would have been one to watch definitely.

Vamos Rafa!!!

Posted by Angelk 01/06/2010 at 06:44 PM

We are ready for Rafa's "World Of Magic" this year!!! We are going for A.O., R.G., and the US.O. this year.... at least :)) VAAAAAMOS RAFAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!

Posted by Kombo 01/06/2010 at 06:47 PM

Confidence is a big part of the game, obviously, but it's often forgotten that when Rafa was at his best his forehand was the most dominant shot in the game. That's not the case anymore. His modal tactic; heavy top-spin to the righty backhand, just doesn't make hay like it used to against the likes of Soderling and Del Potro. I thought his backhand was the key to his winning AO last year, but that's gone for a stroll the last few months.

We'll see on the court.

Posted by Rafas back! 01/06/2010 at 06:49 PM

Rafas is back. I sense that this is a great year for him.

Posted by kj 01/06/2010 at 07:08 PM

I'm a federer fan but i beleive that federer probbably has better chance to win the 3 grandslams that happen later in the year because the new blue courts are so slow it may as well be blue clay. Smart tv executives slowing down the surface so they get longer matches with fewer outright winners so that they can fatten up their bank balance. If the courts were anything like Abu Dhabi or Qatar it would be feds, just like 07

Posted by skip1515 01/06/2010 at 07:20 PM

"The question now is, can Nadal climb back to those peaks of confidence that he reached in his “man of the moment” summer of 2008? And if so, how long will it take?"

Or, *what* will it take?

The intensity (and confidence) Nadal demonstrated from the Chasing Years of his being the longest running #2 ever, and then through 2008, was the most unbelievable display of ferocity I've ever seen on a tennis court. Connors was willfull-ness personified, but compared to Nadal's attitude on every friggin' ball Connors was a trained attack chihuahua.

To me the question is whether or not that one-of-a-kind approach to the game can be reignited. Age and success have a way of blunting an all or nothing perspective. At even money odds I wouldn't bet against Nadal's return to the top, but it isn't a given.

Posted by amanda townsend 01/06/2010 at 07:36 PM

Nice Article...but Since I dont like Rafa at all (not Federer fan either) so i wish His confidence will never come back and he will never win any other Slam In his Career!!!!!

Posted by vbt 01/06/2010 at 07:39 PM

bbc was right, rafa needs to go back to his usual sleeveless wardrobe. orange, yellow, and pink ? i dont know men.

Posted by Andre Canino 01/06/2010 at 07:39 PM

is that the new aero pro drive gt. that is sick!!! when will those come out?


que ganes el australian open.

Posted by maedel (vamos rafa!) 01/06/2010 at 07:45 PM

Hi, Steve --

I'm cautiously optimistic about Rafa's game this year. From what I saw in the match against Bolelli, he seemed to be returning serves better (i.e. longer), something that commentators kept mentioning last year as an aspect of his game that he could work on. I'm hoping that he will regain the confidence and thus the ferocity that he displays when he is at his best, so that I won't have to resort to watching DVDs of old matches to see that version of Rafa again (as well as his biceps).

I agree with you about the unfortunate shirt, although I see that a few posters here seem to like it well enough.

Thanks for the new years post as well. When are you going to publish a collection of your columns? I'll be among the first to buy it.

Happy new year and best wishes to all.

Posted by Nam1 01/06/2010 at 08:17 PM

Nice article, Steve. Vamos Rafa, 2010 will be his yesr, I hope , I pray!!

BTW, I see the trolls are out again. well, one anyway.

Posted by Tfactor 01/06/2010 at 08:22 PM

Another great article, thanks.
I was discussing Rafa and Roger earlier today on a different website and my take was pretty similar to yours (of course you express it so much better)
We're so lucky to have these two great players, one amazes us with his incredible consistency, the other takes us on some very thrilling roller coaster rides.
I'm hoping Rafa regains the French Open title and barring injuries I will also give him a good chance at Wimbledon.
Vamos Rafa!

Posted by mcakron 01/06/2010 at 08:49 PM

Unlike clay and grass, HC speculation about Rafa (and for that matter, Federer) is also dependent upon how the top ten plays. Recalling last year's AO, only one top ten player raised his game noticeably (Verdasco) during the fortnight. What happens if players like Muzz, Delpo and Djoker are firing on all cylinders? Suddenly, a much tougher trophy for either half of Fedal to bag. Remember too, unlike on grass or clay, all of the top eight players in the world are comfortable on concrete. Fed himself may be the greatest HC player ever, but he probably has a better chance of winning Wimby at this stage of his career than either HC slam; thus far only Rafa and Roddick have shown their games to be at home on grass. On clay the list might be Djoker, Delpo and DavyD ... well, Solderling of course -- sorry Majoraca fans.

My own hunch is we'll learn if Rafa's all the way back during the CC season. Now if he wins the AO -- a prospect whose chances one would be stupid to discount -- then all bets are off. But I've always suspected we would judge his post-injury recovery most accurately when the oh-ten European clay season rolls around. And I admit to thinking, along the lines of Pete B, that this could be a year in which we have four different Slam winnners; the gap between Fedal and others seems to be narrowing.

Posted by antoinette 01/06/2010 at 08:53 PM

You tennis commentators are nothing if not consistent. You have written the script and assigned roles to the main protagonists and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary you are sticking with it. Federer is the icy cyborg focused only on perfection and is therefore distanced from the fan , lacking ability to engage the emotions of the viewer, by contrast Nadal is the gutsy emotional warrior whose personality is so big that he evokes passion etc.

I have been watching tennis for a long time and have had my faves from Wilander to Rios , Becker,Edberg, Rafter and now Federer. I admire Nadal's achievements as a Champion but watching him play is not the near orgasmic experience that your prose evokes. I guess I do not have enough "passion". But then tennis is just a game , no? It is not a life and death struggle now matter how much you guys like to us to believe it is.

I am tired of this storyline and I hope we will get a respite from it in 2010.

Posted by Frances 01/06/2010 at 08:57 PM

vamos steve - i know you like rafa!!!! i have to read this!!!

Posted by hitman193 01/06/2010 at 09:03 PM

i think rafa cant be the same person he was in is going to be downhill for him from here

Posted by rafadoc 01/06/2010 at 09:34 PM

"Nadal’s ups and downs make him, more than most other players, worth watching for the journey as much as for the end result."

So well said Steve. It makes me crazy sometimes but then when he finally wins, the emotional journey is so worth it.

And you are spot on about the confidence issue. That is what Uncle Toni and Rafa repeated over and over again this past fall-that Rafa needs to get match practice and confidence. And you also hit the nail on the head regarding time frame. It can happen quickly. It doesn't necessarily have to "build" for Rafa. In the past, he has said it was a shot, a break point converted, or a win against someone that turns the switch on for him.

Posted by d 01/06/2010 at 10:23 PM

This is nadals year, even though I support Federer

Posted by TennisFan 01/06/2010 at 10:27 PM

Tignor, you might as well be on Nadal's payroll (although he doesn't need that). You never miss a chance to crap on Federer or write his obituary. I think Fed is still playing just to put the likes of you out of business.

Posted by JimF 01/06/2010 at 10:31 PM

Nadal-Del Potro H2H: 0 - 3.

Nadal's got a big problem with the tall players in the top 20 now; his heavy topspin doesn't jump over their heads it just sits up in their strike zones begging to be hammered. Nadal has problems with any tournament that has Del Potro, Cilic, Soderling, Murray, Tsonga and Berdych. He can't get seeded around all of them.

As for Wimbledon 08 being the "best match ever", it wasn't even the best match between Nadal and Fed: That was their five-hour Rome final, which was played at a much, much higher level.

Posted by Game Lover 01/06/2010 at 10:32 PM


How are his knees? How is he moving?

OK, he "ran around a couple of BHs"...And in general?

Knees first, confidence later imho!

Good luck to him!

Posted by Russ 01/06/2010 at 10:41 PM

I can think of no more painful a journey to watch than Rafa's trip to Confidenceland. ;)

Posted by fae coleman 01/06/2010 at 11:11 PM

Brilliant article Steve, you always deliver. Of course there will be the haters out there, the purists, some of them Fed fans, but I am a fan of both, I have to say though I find Rafa more exciting! Federer is just too clinical although wonderfully fluid player. But Rafa's intensity and passion is unmatched, the way you describe the ride that he takes us when watching him is excatly how I feel when watching him, the energy, the atheletism is the best I have seen, I for one long to see more or the real Rafa, the tennis world is a better place with Rafa in the draw. And for the record JimF, Rafa has a winning record against all those players you mentioned, even in Paris he beat Tsonga in straight last year even though he was below par, what are you on about? He showed Soderling (who was confident having just beaten Fed), a thing or too, exho or not they played to win!!! Vamos Rafa indeed!

Posted by rafadoc 01/06/2010 at 11:26 PM

JimF: Just in case you are interested in facts Rafa v. Del Potro is 4-3, Head to Head, with Juan winning the last 3.

And, a winning H2H against all players you mention, save Cilic who is 1-0 vs. Rafa. :)

I believe Rafa has a losing H2H against only 2 players, Cilic and Nalbandian (can't wait to see Nalby back soon, btw).

Posted by captain ham 01/06/2010 at 11:50 PM

win or lose rafa gets my vote for the most exciting player to watch. the orange shirt looks great--at least it's not that pansy outfit federer wore at wimbledon. vamos rafa!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by T.ks 01/07/2010 at 12:26 AM

When will Nadal be quick everytime in his serve? I don't understand why noone feel annoyed by his behavior, he always cheats every player. Do the ampires think he's a super player so they never warn him for doing that?

Posted by kyle 01/07/2010 at 12:39 AM

i think rafa looked alot better in doha then he did at the tail end of 2009 but still not top form
also, i think rafa looks amazing in orange

Posted by Anuraag 01/07/2010 at 01:18 AM

Rafa has made an comeback an we all know what a great fighter he is....2 maybe 3 he ll win this yr which includes the US open making an career slam.....

Posted by Corrie 01/07/2010 at 02:24 AM

I like Nadal a lot but I don't understand all this stuff about "excitement", "passion", "emotional", when he plays. To me, he puts his game face on, which is rather scowling and frowning, just as Federer's is rather inscrutable. That's what they have to do to win, nothing wrong with that. When they're both well into the match and concentrating hard, they're particularly hard to read with their game faces. And Nadal is so very deliberate with all his movements in serving, where is the excitement and passion in that?

For emotion and wearing his heart on his sleeve, reflecting the ups and downs of play, I'd go for Djokovic, easily. He's great fun to watch. But maybe that's why he hasn't won as much. Federer certainly learnt that the hard way, going from emotional underachiever to zipped up until the final point.

Posted by Isa 01/07/2010 at 02:30 AM

Rafa is dressed like a clown.

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 01/07/2010 at 03:02 AM

Hey, everyone. :)

"Where Federer, the ultimate in consistent excellence, barely lets us see him sweat, Nadal takes us for a ride with him as he plays—sometimes it's scary, other times it's exhilarating."'s amazing how quickly Federer's (relative) struggles through 2008 and the first half of 2009 get forgotten. He didn't just cruise to his comeback, he fought for it with every ounce of heart and courage he had, coming through plenty of close matches, poor and patchy form, frustration with himself and lots of questioning of his ability, to get it. And I think we underestimate that aspect of Federer generally.

I am not very good at making predictions, particularly not when it comes to Rafa, as the frazzle tends to interfere with the judgment. :) But the streak thing seems fairly clear; and people have said that Rafa will start losing ground at the end of every one of his years on tour, it feels like. So I am not ready to write him off as a contender just yet. Agree with mcakron and others that any hot streak may not catch fire until the clay season; on the other hand, if it happens before, I wouldn't be that surprised.

Posted by Tfactor 01/07/2010 at 03:13 AM

I can't speak for Steve but when I think of Fed I def. think consistency. I know he went through a sort of slump between 2008-2009 (for him anyway) but he was still able to keep his consecutive semifinal record running (is it 22 or more by now?). That is not to say that I don't think he has courage or heart, on the contrary and it's another reason he's my second favorite.
I think I understand what Steve is saying about both of them and I guess I don't see how saying that Rafa has ups and downs and Fed is lot more consistent is not accurate.

Posted by Charles 01/07/2010 at 03:20 AM

Great article, Steve!

my picks for 2010 slams
AO - Djokovic (or maybe Delpo - still waffling)
F - Nadal
W - Federer
US - Del Potro

The situation we're in at the dawn of 2010 reminds me a little of the dawn of 1986. McEnroe was the established champion with 7 majors under his belt, Wilander had been challenging the top for a few years and had 4 majors. Lendl had just won the USO and had 2 majors, and new kids Becker and Edberg had just shaken up the world order claiming their first majors.

What happened in 1986-87?

McEnroe never made another major final. (=Federer)
Wilander suffered a 2-year crisis of confidence before winning on the big stage again. (=Nadal)
Lendl dominated the sport for 2 years winning 4 major finals and RU in 2 others (=Del Potro)
Becker and Edberg each won one major and went on to become eventual #1's (=Djokovic and Murray)
Connors (=Hewitt) never made another major final, and Cash (=Roddick) eventually won the big W.

well, I'm not sure I buy that either, it clearly contradicts my predictions, but interesting to think about...

Seriously though, the confidence issue is major. Borg lost his and was essentially driven from the game by McEnroe, McEnroe lost his and was driven from the game by Lendl. Del Potro could conceivably have the same effect on Nadal.

But Nadal is just so darn tough...
I'll bet #1 this year ends up a slugfest between Nadal, Del Potro and Djokovic. I guess that puts me in the uncomfortable position of predicting no more than a 4th place finish for Federer - which seems a little hard to believe, and Murray, I guess, in 5th....

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 01/07/2010 at 03:26 AM

Morning, Tfactor. :)

It's not the "consistent excellence" that I was (mildly) objecting to; more the "doesn't let us see him sweat" - although I think I am thinking of a Viewpoint post and other posts a few months back as well - and the huge dichotomy that sometimes gets painted, of cold efficient Roger and warm passionate Rafa. That characterisation doesn't quite work for me.

Put as Rafa has up and down streaks and Federer is more consistent generally - makes sense to me. :)

Posted by Tfactor 01/07/2010 at 03:34 AM

Maybe it's just that I'm a not only a fan of Rafa's but also of Steve's but I don't think Steve is saying Roger is cold and efficient but what do I know? I certainly can't speak for him (and I don't know if he indeed he said that in previous posts)
I think we got a pretty good idea of how emotional Roger is at AO'09 and how much he cares about the game.
I just fail to see anything not complimentary about Roger in Steve's post so was a little puzzled by some of the comments but maybe others also see it the way you do.

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 01/07/2010 at 03:46 AM

Well, I don't think it's uncomplimentary or disrespecting Federer or anything like that - I mean, consistent excellence could hardly be called an insult, could it? I also like Steve's writing, even if I don't say so in every comment, or like every post. :) (I did actually like this one, I am having a minor quibble, that's all.)

I suppose I just think the contrasts are too sharply drawn sometimes and sometimes we then don't see other aspects of players. And maybe I'm reading too much into it all anyway. :)

Posted by Tfactor 01/07/2010 at 03:50 AM

"I just think the contrasts are too sharply drawn sometimes and sometimes we then don't see other aspects of players"
Well I certainly agree with you on that one and I do appreciate your explanation and point of view. :))

Posted by Aussiemarg,Madame President,Summer in Oz Tennis 01/07/2010 at 04:06 AM

Steve I am glad you think Rafa is the Player to Watch in 2010.

I remember the first time I watched this youngster on the tour and he got under my skin in a good way let me tell you.Having follwed Rafa,well it seems like forever I agree and have said many times in my posts about him he takes you on this incredible ride.A lot of the times I felt I have been on a Roller Coaster with him.

He remminded me of a younger Agassi in many ways who brought everything bar the kitchen sink with him on court.Passion! indeed.Without it in your life it gets you nowhere.

I have watched Rafa over the yeats with the rises and dips in his career mainly I feel due to his many injuries which have hampered him somewhat.Though the one thing I have always admired of him he just gets back on his bike regardless and off he goes again.

Rafa in 2010 has to really look at his playing schedule.His knees are always going to be a ongoing problem.The management is also a ongoing issue.I feel both these factors are vital.I hold no fears of his Want,Passion and his drive these things often get you over the winning line.

A healthy and fit Rafa.

I want to see that Raging Bull again.

Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 01/07/2010 at 04:08 AM

You gave me some perspective, too, Tfactor, and I appreciate that. :)

Posted by manuelsantanafan 01/07/2010 at 04:23 AM

Charles writes: " . . . the confidence issue is major. Borg lost his and was essentially driven from the game by McEnroe."

The myth that Borg "was driven from the game by McEnroe" is a myth, at one time promulgated by McEnroe and Mike Lupica, and since continued by others who have never provided convincing corroborating evidence, such as comments by Borg or anyone else in Borg's inner circle.

At the time of Borg's first "retirement" Borg was the defending Roland Garros champion, had won 33 straight singles matches in Davis Cup play, and had reached the finals in the most recent Wimbledon and U.S. Open tournaments.

If anyone believes that, at that point in time, Borg was having nightmares about entering Roland Garros and seeing McEnroe across the net, that person is probably wrong.

Probably most important to an analysis of why Borg left the tour in the early 1980s is that, at that point in time, Borg had been on the tour for about a decade, was richer than the King of Sweden, and had made it to the top of the game.

Probably--and I'm speculating here--Borg came to the conclusion that life offered opportunities more appealing than chasing yellow, fuzzy balls around a court--such as squandering most of his considerabl fortune in stupid and/or poorly executed business ventures.

This is a hypothesis on my part, but certainly one more likely to approach the truth than McEnroe's self-serving statements that he "drove" Borg out of the game.

Posted by Little Goku 01/07/2010 at 05:05 AM

"CONFIDENCE: its key its preparation.Decided and constant effort, wins every resistance and obstacle." (David Baird, Thousand paths to confidence)
Rafa from an interview to Spanish newspaper :20 minutos, in the last Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London:
What's missing?
Confidence, intensity and rhythm.
And I think I am close to returning to be the one I was before.

How do you get?
The only way I know: training a lot

Posted by Nauman 01/07/2010 at 05:34 AM

Atleast 2 slams this year :-) e'thing seems coming back to your way Rafa
Steve doing a good job man

Posted by jfk 01/07/2010 at 06:40 AM

who can beat Rafa? All is up to him if he is in the top form no body can defeat him

Posted by spartan 01/07/2010 at 06:52 AM

French Open for Rafa and maybe another one...
Depends on his forehand and his knees.
For sure, he will try to come back at his 2008 level.
But...Del Potro is coming right now even on clay and Murray will win one major pretty soon.
The competition will be hard this year !

Posted by htu1028 01/07/2010 at 07:55 AM

Nadal needs to tell Nike enough with these lame shirts and let him wear his sleeveless tops again. Otherwise he can't energize himself by flexing his biceps after winners.

Posted by antoinette 01/07/2010 at 08:23 AM


Thank you for your comments at 3:02am and 3:46am. These writers need to stop feeding us these pre-packaged storylines as if we are in kindergarten. If they can't think of anything new to say about FEDAL then focus on the other players in the ATP.

Posted by rafafan#1 01/07/2010 at 08:28 AM

this is not what i want to happen, but i think it will..........

AO- federer
FO- delpotro
WI- federer
UO- delpotro

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 01/07/2010 at 08:47 AM

Nice post, Steve. Nadal as the ultimate "confidence player" is spot on, I think. He actually plays a high-risk game in the sense that he is gambling all the time that he can come up with the unexpected winner fromnowehere or that he can pass the attacker after a long exchange.

Not to be picayune, you might want to look again at this sentence:

"Federer would subsequently hold for 5-4, forcing Nadal to serve to stay in a match that had once seemed sure to be his."

The pronoun "his" at the end of the sentence is intended to refer to "Federer," I believe, yet grammatically it cannot, as "Nadal" is the nearest antecedent noun.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 01/07/2010 at 09:03 AM

Jewell, I totally agree with your comment: "'s amazing how quickly Federer's (relative) struggles through 2008 and the first half of 2009 get forgotten. He didn't just cruise to his comeback, he fought for it with every ounce of heart and courage he had, coming through plenty of close matches, poor and patchy form, frustration with himself and lots of questioning of his ability, to get it. And I think we underestimate that aspect of Federer generally."

Federer's personal failures following sickness and injury, followed by his personal redemptions and proving to the world that he could win RG and Wimby again, make him the most passion-filled player in the game, bar none. The flood of emotion that he often displays after a hard-earned slam win or loss bespeak the effort it takes for him to contain it.

Posted by Jim 01/07/2010 at 09:06 AM

Being one with shakey knees myself, I see it probable that Rafa will lose the #2 spot and probably not win a major this year. To win a major the draw would really need to break well for him. Five set matches for two weeks will wear him down and his game doesn't suit itself to winning ugly. Like the old Smith -Barney commercial he does it the old fashioned way, he earns it. He won't survive a Verdasco type match this year; win or lose. I hope I'm wrong.

Posted by Master Ace 01/07/2010 at 09:12 AM

FYI, Rafael is not on the players list to play Dubai(Roger, both Andys, Novak, and Juan Martin is on the list). Think someone posted that Rafael is going to take 3 weeks off after playing Rotterdam. Schedule is Abu Dhabi(won 250K), Doha, AO, Rotterdam, Indian Wells. Since Roger and/or Stanislas not playing Davis Cup, Rafael will probably not play and complete his 3 off weeks in full.

Posted by ac 01/07/2010 at 09:34 AM

I love Nadal and really miss him playing his best tennis. I hope he comes back better than ever this year.

Posted by Jim 01/07/2010 at 09:38 AM

In looking over the entire comment list I find it curious that of all the men major predictions the biggest "outlier" was someone suggesting Roddick might have a chance at Wimbly. Given his relative sucess on that grass in the past that is hardly going out on a limb. I'll go out on one and say we will have a new grand slam champion this year and it will be at the French and it will not be Murray or Davydenko. The "elites" have been too exclusively sucessful for awhile. A young Becker, Wilander, or Chang will break into the party.

Posted by Sophie 01/07/2010 at 09:39 AM

If you take all of Nadal's matches so far in 2010 and compare them to his opening tournaments in previous seasons, I think his form is quite exciting. Rafa has always been a slow starter - there was the titanic effort it took to beat Moya followed by a thrashing by Youzhny in 2008 and last year he was well down the list of favourites heading into the opening slam. In fact, last week's exhibition tournament marked the first time he had ever won an event before the Australian Open. I think you can clearly see him working his way back into a groove. He's got a long way to go, but he is striking the ball better now than he has in a long time, he is looking more aggressive and the passing shots and down the line winners (which have previously been a barometer of his confidence and form) are slowy returning.

There is no question for me that we'll see Nadal eventually getting back to his best. I still question his schedule choices though. Rotterdam seems an odd choice considering it falls straight after the Aussie Open and particuarly because it is a fast indoor court that ended up causing - or at least hugely contributing to - an injury last season.

Posted by Sophie 01/07/2010 at 09:47 AM

PS - my other question... what on earth is Nike doing??? They take away Nadal's signature look, claiming that it doesn't translate well to sales as "normal" people don't have the muscles to wear the sleeveless shirts. That would be fair enough, but then you look at the current range of tops. Surely even less people would buy flourescent orange tops with white sections and pink stripes??


Posted by thebigapple 01/07/2010 at 09:52 AM

Slice, good comment at 9;03.

Fed is the most passionate player in the game. That boy that used to vent and break rackets still lives, now reined. Just.

Posted by garb0 01/07/2010 at 10:02 AM

Well written as always Steve,

There's a couple of things to remember here though.

- Nadal is "made of glass" to quote Guy Lafleur's words about Peter Forsberg. You almost expect him to be injured and away for some time during 2010.
- The new breed of hardhitters (Del Potro, Soderling, Cilic and so on) clearly doesn't suit Nadal at all.
- Even though Nadal still is young, he's been up there for many years. Compare him to Borg, Wilander, Becker who faded away (or quit) around 24-25 years old.


Posted by jewell - Make tea, not war. 01/07/2010 at 10:22 AM

For me it isn't about who is the most passionate or not; just that sometimes passion etc can be underestimated. I think all the players at the top have plenty of heart but express it in different ways, perhaps.

I think the "certain to be his" refers to Rafa and him having been two sets to love up and holding championship points, no?

Posted by Jan P 01/07/2010 at 10:40 AM

Thanks for a great article, Steve. I agree totally with initz (comments back on the first page) re "The reason I am a Rafa fan is exactly that said in the last paragraph. Rafa´s game is 'worth watching for the journey...Nadal takes us for a ride with him as he plays—sometimes it's scary, other times it's exhilarating', he gives it all (most of the time), his strong mind, his passion when he plays, his 'transparency' make´s you FEEL... a match."

When I see him struggling or seemingly totally outmatched (as with Del Potro at USO), I FEEL his pain, too... wow, after watching him for many years, it just hurts to see him at his low.

I also agree that he needs Fed--the two feed off of each other, for sure.

Hoping he will win one Slam this year but I certainly don't think it's for certain and I wouldn't predict it, either--I think he will at least be in more than one Final Slam match.

BTW... I also like the orange shirt! (was really getting sick of the green...)

Posted by Frances 01/07/2010 at 11:12 AM

staeve-- again thanks for writing about rafa-- we all fans are eagerly and patiently waiting for him...

and yes it has been absolutely a rollercoaster to follow him-- and yes a very TRANSPARENT person in deed.. but i wont have it any other way....!!!

vamos rafa!!!

and hi to all rafa fans here

best wishes to us

Posted by Frances 01/07/2010 at 11:24 AM

and PS -- steve -- i am a fan of his fashion statement right now!! i like hte sleeves and the orange/with pin stripes-- even though it bad omen!!!!

Posted by Neeraj 01/07/2010 at 12:34 PM

Vamos !!!!!!!!
Go for it....
Jst beat Fedrer n den u will regain ur top spot as well as the crown of winnig all
The Four Grandslams of the Year!!!!!!

Posted by 01/07/2010 at 02:05 PM

That is so cagey, saying something without actually saying anything.
Or maybe, as a Nadal fan, I just want reassurance that he'll be fine.

Posted by Kombo 01/07/2010 at 02:32 PM

If Rafa meets Del Potro at any major other than Wimbledon, he's not winning that matchup. I think a fully fit Del Potro could give him a run for his money at the FO. I can understand the eagerness to call rafa's three wins in a row a comeback. But I think it's premature and a stretch. Murray looked like a world-beater at the same point last year and he's still slamless while Del Potro, who wasn't all that heralded at the time, has since won his first and looks well positioned to win more.

The headline of the post is true, I will be watching Rafa, hopefully it won't be as sadenning as it was to watch him at the end of last season. Let's also not assume that things are all in Rafa's hands and all he needs is to feel confident to win. This is tennis, things are not all in his hands, the other guys will have a say in matter. The more he has to rely on passion, as opposed to outplaying his opponents tactically or technically (taking the ball early, controlling points offensively, etc), the more his style of play will take its physical toll. Trying to play Del Potro from ten feet behind the baseline is a losing proposition for anyone.

Posted by ryan 01/07/2010 at 03:37 PM

Rafa will come back if his knees hold up and he can manage his OCD. I see him messing with his towels and water bottles and that can spell trouble.

Having to work so increibly hard for every point is tough on a guys mind and body. His game is so very dependent on his speed and quickness. He will also need to gain confidence with his serve. However, I still think he will win Roland Garros.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 01/07/2010 at 03:45 PM

"If Rafa meets Del Potro at any major other than Wimbledon, he's not winning that matchup."

How about that.

The ONLY WAY Del Potro beats Rafa at Roland Garros is if Rafa is injured.

Rafa has won Four titles at Roland Garros.

Del Potro has not even reached the finals at Roland Garros.

Rafa has won at least TEN top-level Masters Series tournaments held on clay.

Del Potro has not even reached the finals of a top-level clay Masters Series tournament.

And Del Potro is favored over Rafa on Roland Garros clay?

In your dreams.

Posted by Mr Rick 01/07/2010 at 04:06 PM

Thanks Steve for the great piece. Rafa will obviously need to find that very delicate balance between playing enough to keep up his confidence and rhythm vs. not playing so much that his knees/other body parts give out again. I agree with previous posters that he needs to really be careful about his schedule, and it would be great if he could sit out the first round of the Davis Cup. I am also praying for a very severe but very brief virus to hit him on the first day of the Madrid Tournament.

Loyal fans of Rafa can always tell when he is feeling well and playing well, and once he gets into his groove, he's hard to beat. The more he wins, well, the more he wins. He rarely goes up and down unpredictably, the way players such as Djokovic, Roddick, Davydenko, Safin or Nalbandian are wont to do at times.

He added some very impressive tools to his game in 2008, including a much improved serve, and by the time he got through Queens it was obvious he had moved his game up into a whole other league. Those improvements set him up for an eight tournament winning streak in 2008 plus the AO and Indian Wells win in 2009.

When we see those skills come back in full force, and there are great signs they will, he WILL start winning again. And he seems to always be willing to tinker with and improve his game, so I doubt he is just going to let some of the young guns like Del Potro just run over him. Give Rafa a challenge and he will meet it - or die trying. I for sure will keep watching him - tennis is just not the same without him, especially when he is in his "zone." His blistering cross court back hands, DTL forehands, those pin point accurate down the T serves, all those impossible gets, the rock solid confidence - what an amazing player he is.

Posted by FrankS 01/07/2010 at 05:59 PM

Interesting commentary from all.
Although I am a Federer fan, I respect Nadal and enjoy watching him play.
In my opinion, Nadal is great because of sheer effort, mental intensity, and energy expended on the court, not necessarily tennis skill. He's skillful, but not like Fed. If Fed had the "uumph" of Rafa, he'd be over 20 GSs now. But what's made Nadal great will also be his downfall. He can't outmuscle or outpsych everyone for too long. The athletic analogy for me as far as Rafa is concerned is Pedro Martinez in baseball. For 3-4 years, he was untouchable. But his body could not sustain this. Similarly with Rafa, too much starting too young for now too long. He has to work so hard on each shot. Whereas Fed is so smooth he will be playing at a superior level as long as he wants. Like Agassi, Fed will be in GS finals well into his 30s. Rafa - who knows - but let's enjoy him while we can.

Posted by paddy101 01/07/2010 at 06:15 PM

Rafa will return in 2010 and it will be his best year yet.Federer will be on hi way down this year and watch out for vadasco!

My predictions for this years tournements:

A.O Rafa
F.O Rafa
W.I Rafa
U.O Rafa(depending on how his knees are)or Murray

Posted by manuelsantanafan 01/07/2010 at 06:32 PM


The comparison to Pedro Martinez is interesting.

However, I'm not sure if Martinez's situation is totally applicable to Rafa.

Martinez has become much more of a guile pitcher than he was earlier. Because Martinez has lost 4-5 mph on his fastball on a consistent basis, he gets hurt much more than he did previously on fastball location mistakes.

Hitters can also sit on Martinez's other pitches and stand a better chance of catching up to Martinez's reduced speed fastballs.

(And I'm not even getting into Martinez's reduced ability to throw non-fastball pitches, if any, because I don't follow Martinez that closely.)

When Rafa is not moving well because of knee tendinitis, as was clearly the case during the latter half of 2009, Rafa is like a current Martinez with his less than stellar fastball.

The question, in my mind, is whether Rafa's knee tendinitis will abate sufficiently for periods of several weeks/months, so that Rafa, during those periods of time, can play at or near his previously top levels during certain majors.

I don't know the answer to that question.

Posted by thebigapple 01/07/2010 at 11:10 PM

I will be content if Rafa stays healthy and plays the sport a little faster. Tone down the rituals between points and play within the rules of the game...That is all I ask.

Posted by Sammy 01/08/2010 at 12:21 AM

Rafa's confidence is indeed the key to his the other elements of his game. It's very true that he's impacted by that more than any other elite athlete of his caliber that I know of. He also has more perseverance and determination than most, so it's only a matter of time before he regains his form, both mentally and physically. My only hope is that his body holds up, because I'd be delighted to see him play at the top of his game for many more years. He's the main reason I've become an avid tennis fan again after I gave up on the game with the retirement of the Boris Becker generation, and his rivalry with Federer is simply intoxicating to follow.

Posted by Charles 01/08/2010 at 01:32 AM

you make valid points re Borg and McEnroe, however I have my doubts Borg would have retired had he won either the USO or W in 1981 - those victories would probably have kept him at yearend #1 in most people's minds - including his. As it stands, I think he thought he couldn't beat McEnroe (except on clay of course - no one seriously suggests Mac was better than Borg on clay). just mho...

I read the sentence understanding that Nadal was the antecedent and it made perfect sense.

Posted by Tee-Times 01/08/2010 at 03:03 AM

Does anyone know the TV schedule yet for the 2010 Australian Open in the US??? Please apply if you know it. I've tried USTA, ESPN2, Tennis Channel. I can't get the 2010 schedule.

Posted by ? 01/08/2010 at 11:44 AM

I read the sentence understanding that Nadal was the antecedent and it made perfect sense.

Posted by Frances 01/08/2010 at 12:32 PM

i pray that rafa will have a good year!!!!!

Posted by Frances 01/08/2010 at 01:34 PM

PS i hope he's average 6 months good play will come at teh right moments!! if only he can spread it over the course of the year>P

but like i said all i hope is a good year for nadal and his family esp his parents.

I wonder if they have reconciled

Posted by Frances 01/08/2010 at 02:04 PM

i wish you are right!

Posted by Héctor 01/08/2010 at 03:39 PM

Nadal's second half of the season was bad? Not in results (maybe in pure shot-making): 1800 points between Montreal and Paris. That's better in the hardcourt late season than almost anyone in the ATP tour (top 6-7 for sure)....
I think it is his last performance in London what make people judge his season so harshly. As he said recently, he would sign to repeat 2009 results in the coming seasons....
But again, some journalists were burying alive Roger Federer in 2008 when he "only" made it to 3 GS finals and a 5th succesive US Open championship.....
...You always have to write about something, no matter if it is not real....

Posted by penny 01/08/2010 at 05:31 PM

Djokovic will one GS but which one I don't know.

Posted by Tiklish 01/08/2010 at 06:06 PM

Great article! I especially like the last paragraph. I find when I'm watching anyone else play tennis on TV, I feel like I'm seated somewhere in the middle of the stands. When I'm watching Rafa, I feel like I'm in the front row.

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